What We Could Learn From the Life of Steve Jobs

What We Could Learn From the Life of Steve Jobs

For the past 8 years I have been following the pursuits of Steve Jobs. I have been more of a fanboy than I am today, but for the occasion of writing my introductory piece for Proto.ink, I wrote this article on the lessons we could learn from the life of Steve Jobs.

I think Steve Jobs was a Creative Technologist, or at least he had some Create-like characteristics. Steve Jobs was a T-shaped professional and above all a very successful entrepreneur. There are many things to learn from him that you can use in your studies and later in your career.

Steve Jobs and I are not quite alike, and I will never become someone like him. There are a few things to consider concerning the life of the co-founder of Apple. He made many questionable decisions during his life and had lots of enemies. This item will focus on ten positive things, though.

Before writing this piece I read the official biography of Steve Jobs (2011) by Walter Isaacson and Inside Steve’s Brain (2008) by Leander Kahney. I watched all the live appearances of Steve Jobs, but also stayed open to other sources of information and as this article unfolds, links will pop-up that will place it in a broader context. The points of interest are formatted as a top ten.

1. Start with Why

The first point on this list relates to a quite interesting philosophy. It is the very essence of Apple’s success and when you understand this you will start to see it everywhere. All of a sudden you will get why it is not some weirds coincidence that Apple is sometimes seen as a religion with Steve Jobs as its spiritual leader.

Steve Jobs wanted to change the world. He wanted to challenge the status quo. He wanted to put a ding the universe. This was his “why”. This was his belief. This belief connected him to other people with the same belief – the future employees of Apple – that he could collaborate with or hire to work for him. This bigger group of people sharing the same belief got connected to other groups of people that where sharing the same belief and the latter group would of course be the customer base of Apple.

To convey this concept in the right way I have to refer you to Simon Sinek. He wrote the book Start With Why (2011) where he explained how he thought great leaders where able to inspire everyone to take action. Your first homework assignment is to watch the legendary TED talk Sinek gave in 2010 where he explains what Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright Brothers have in common.

What you should take away from this is how important it is to know why your organisation exists. Why do you get up in the morning?

2. Be annoyed

Why did Steve Jobs wanted to change the world? What is or was wrong with it in his opinion? The thing is that nothing is wrong with it in particular. If you are living in our safe, structured and civilised Western world, you can live your life without making any organisational changes. Sure, you will fulfil a job that was done by your predecessor and will be fulfilled in the future by your successor. Also you will transform food into excreta. Stop – let me rephrase that – the bacteria of your intestinal flora will transform food into excreta; you are not even responsible for this simple task.

So how do we push the human race forward? How can you personally accomplish change? First you will have to make it your belief to change the world, like described in section 1. Then you need to have a personal motive. Steve Jobs’ incentive to challenge the status quo was the fact that he was frustrated by it. Especially he disliked the leak of style and aesthetics.

I can totally imagine why he would be annoyed. Maybe it was the fact he lived in California – for those of you who have been to America, you will remember how little style and character the average town, building or newspaper has compared to our historic Europe. Maybe it was the fact that the uprising computer industry had yet to be introduced to design and simplicity – things we take for granted now in our personal technology.

3. Take Action

It is crucial is to take action. One can be frustrated by a changeable aspect of the world for a lifetime and never think of taking action. Steve Jobs put his annoyance to work and became a big player in the computer and the entertainment industry.

Sometimes you hear people say: “I thought of the idea behind Ebay before Ebay started”, but those people forget that most of the times it is more important to do stuff than to think of doing stuff.

Why haven’t you started a business yet? Are your ideas not valuable enough? I think they are, and if your business will ultimately fail than you have the experience, which is just as important. Is the market not ready? I think it is. Are you too busy? I think you can make time to run a business. You will not start as a CEO of billion dollar company. You can work for yourself one day in the week. Be sure to take action.

4. Carry through

Steve Jobs found a way to deal with failures and setbacks. An illustration of this is the fact that he immediately started a new company after he got fired from Apple. And getting fired from Apple was a big deal for him. What had been the focus of his entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. It was a very public failure.

How did he carry through? We would have to recall section 1 to answer this question. His belief stayed the same. With NEXT he build a computer that would be the foundation of Apple after 1998.

In my personal life I would love to work on my ability to carry through. Right now if something does not work the first time I get bored and stop trying. If this happens too often it does not matter that I started with why, got annoyed by the status quo and took action. I would like to make it matter.

5. Stay open to new developments

Here’s another little idea: Stay open to new experiences and developments. To put this in context it would be helpful to watch Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford. During this speech he told about the parable of connecting the dots. The story goes like this.

Steve Jobs never finished college. But even after he dropped out he stayed on campus for a while and randomly followed a course on calligraphy. Later when he was working on the Macintosh (1984) he could use this knowledge to suit the word processor of one of the first personal computers with different fonts. This had never been done before and this is a great example of how you can only connect the dots looking back. Steve Jobs always trusted that the dots would somehow connect in the future.

You should remember this when you are planning out your study path, your career or your relationship. Sometimes it might be better to trust on your gut feeling. This is also a lesson you can learn from reading Jason Fried’s Rework. This CEO of software company Basecamp has many mantra’s, one of which is “planning is guessing”. His company does not make 5-year-plans, because they are a waste of time, in his eyes.

Organising your life in a way that maximises the amount of new experiences can have an enriching effect on your life. Planning out every step of the way, on the contrary, can result in a waste of time.

6. Create and experience

I would like to introduce you to the American painter Mark Rothko. He is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist. His cause was to let people feel his emotions via his paintings. This was his belief; this was why he got up in the morning.

A painting by Mark Rothko at an exhibition in The Hague, The Netherlands

He achieved this by making big paintings that would fill the field of view of the observer. He wanted his paintings to hang on grey walls in dimmed light. He even constructed a building, now called the Rothko Chapel, where he hung his paintings and thereby created an atmosphere that was optimal for viewing his work. He created an experience.

What moves me when I look at Rothko’s paintings is the same as what moves me when I look at Steve Jobs’ work. I think of Steve Jobs as more than just the passed away CEO of a computer company.

I characterise Rothko as well as Steve Jobs as User Experience Designers. UX design is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product. My dream is to follow in Jobs’ and Rothko’s footsteps in a sense that I hope to be a successful UX designer one day.

7. Emotion vs Intellect

Besides insight in business and technology, Steve Jobs left much room for emotion in his life. An individual’s reason and emotion can indeed co-exist perfectly.

I myself think it is important that someone is able to process his or her emotions. I highly value that. This disqualifies me for being a typical macho, or a typical nerd. All the ten different points I make are interconnected with each other; creating an experience, for example, might be easier for me if I can canalise my emotion.

8. Become a T-shaped professional

I study Creative Technology at the University of Twente. Since this study covers fields ranging from computer science and electrical engineering to design and even marketing, I can call myself a T-shaped professional when I get my Bachelor degree. The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.

A side note to this is that I think that most of us are drippy T’s, meaning that there can be more than one field of expertise. So I use the T-shaped professional metaphor as a metaphor to express a balance between broad knowledge and deep knowledge.

Steve Jobs can be a great example for this as he was able to communicate with marketing teams, hardware teams, software teams, design teams, etc. I think this is a requirement for being a true leader.

9. Be detail-oriented

I recently learned from Panabee that Steve Jobs was not a perfectionist. He had very high standards, though. Take his famous Keynote speeches for example. He practiced weeks, and weeks for one presentation. I do not see other CEO’s taking this much time for one product presentation, but I think the result is worth it.

Another anecdote that I love is the one told in Jony Ive’s tribute to Steve Jobs. He recalls the times that he and Steve Jobs had to travel. When they arrived at an hotel, they would both go to their rooms and Jony would not unpack, but instead wait. He waited on in his room near the phone, until the enviable phone call came. “Hey Jony, this hotel suck; let’s go” and they would move to another, hopefully better hotel.

I myself sometimes operate on a near-perfectionist level. This is when I am overly enthusiastic about a project and spend much time on every detail. It is important to find the right balance between spend time and perfection of the product. I think it is important to care. I think being detail oriented helps create a better experience.

10. Hire great people

Yes, I already mentioned Jonathan Ive, the lead designer of Apple. Steve Jobs did not design the iPod, iPhone and Mac himself. Neither was he a hardware engineer in a sense that he printed his own circuit boards. He hired great people to do that. People with talent. People with the same belief. People that would then hire more great people.

Steve Jobs remained the visionair by deciding to stop working on the iPad and to first revolutionise the cellphone. He picked out the prototype that would be further developed to be the new product. He had meetings with the teams of Apple and mixed ideas of others with his own ideas.

Many of these things are easier said than done, but I am going to try to give them a place in my life and experiment further with lessons we could learn from one of my role models: Steve Jobs. I am annoyed sometimes. I could by a book on UX design today. I could start a business of my own tomorrow. I could hire great people that share my ideology next week. I am exited to see what the future might bring and what I might bring the future.

I’d like to stay hungry and foolish.

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